The 1983 winner of the prestigious Golden Palm Prize at Cannes, this film is set in Shinsu, a primitive mountain village near Mount Obasute in Northern Japan some 100 years ago. The living conditions are harsh due to the paucity of crops from the soil. Female babies are often sold at birth or murdered. Sixty-nine-year-old Orin (Sumiko Sakamoto) lives with her two sons, Tatsuehi (Ken Ogata), the eldest and head of the family, and Risuke (Tonpei Hidari), an eccentric who resides in the shed because of his foul body odor.
Orin has only a short time left with her family before, in accordance with local custom, she must join the gods in the Narayama mountains. This woman is a mother-earth figure in touch with the ambiguities of survival and the idiosyncracies of human beings. She orchestrates the coming of a new wife for Tatsuehi; the ostracizing of his son's wife who is a thief; the procuring of an old friend to sleep with the sex-starved Risuke; and the tutoring of Tatsuehi's new wife in the secret of catching fish in a nearby stream.
The Ballad of Narayama presents a wild, realistic,and raw portrait of life in this small village where pain and ecstasy, sex and death, familial loyalty and local customs are presented in stark dramatic terms. In one of the film's most gripping scenes, a family of thieves who have hoarded spare foodstuffs are buried alive by their neighbors.
In the closing sequences, Tatsuehi packs his mother on his back and begins a ritualistic trek high into the mountain country. Their emotional journey culminates when he sets Orin down in a valley of skeletons as vultures circle above. Although she seems ready to die, Tatsuehi is overcome with grief. Orin's courage in the face of death and a lifetime of self-sacrifice are rewarded when it begins to snow. Her demise will be swift and relatively painless. Imamura's film enriched by Sumiko Sakamoto's strong performance, Shinichiro Ikebe's evocative music, and Masao Tochizawa's accomplished cinematography is one of great stature and dramatic clout.